Sunday, 30 March 2014

upping sticks
the Old Man
The Old Man of Hoy lurched past as I gripped the rail of the Ola and wondered if this was an act of more than ordinary stupidity. Not, of course, gripping the rail of the Ola, for it was heaving quite a bit, but ending 21 years of living in Orkney, leaving behind many good friends and a way of life that probably would be hard to find elsewhere. Not to speak of finally, after nearly thirty years, separating from a spouse who, even if we had latterly drifted very far apart, remained a friend. The Ola rail was not merely a protection against falling, it somehow steadied the nerve for this leap into the murk. And looking as though I was about to throw up would protect me from idle chat.
Once off the boat at Scrabster, there was no time to look back, for I needed to get to Inverurie, find the estate agents and pick up the keys before they closed, and that focussed the attention wonderfully, for it wasn’t a road where you could rely on being able to pass the many lorries that inevitably got off the boat first. So no time to idle along admiring the passing scenic splendours, no time for lunch, on past Inverness, no stopping to get grape and ginger syllabub at Markies, all that could come later: living on the mainland I would be able to do these things any old time without having to book a ferry crossing. But even if I wasn’t in time to get the keys, in the back of the van were tent, sleeping-bag, camping stove, I could stay overnight very comfortably in the half-acre of garden.
Which however wasn’t necessary, for I got the keys with half an hour to spare, and moved in, unloading from the van all that was necessary to live in comfort: mattress, camping stove, saucepan, some biscuits and cheese, coffee, knife, teaspoon … and my radio/CD player, into which I loaded Jacques Loussier and danced around the room to the sound of jazz Bach. This was better than the tent.
hut and half-acre
And better than any house I’d lived in before. It was, I suppose, the most decrepit structure (if you exclude bothies) of the many, old and new, sound and crumbling, that I’d previously stayed in; for it was basically just a wooden hut clad in concrete blocks, and there was no telling what state the inner timber was in – the whole thing could fall apart any time. But this was the first place to be completely mine; I could repair, adjust, decorate (or not) just as I pleased and could afford; and if it fell to bits I still had that half-acre (and, of course, the tent, sleeping-bag, camping stove …) though playing the CDs might be a problem.
woodland on the doorstep
As it has turned out, 25 years on it hasn’t fallen to bits, though there has been much to do.
Shortly after moving in I went to Majorca with Kay and A for a previously booked holiday. December in Majorca was pleasantly warm, but back home it had been very icy indeed. Before leaving, I’d turned the water off and drained the system, and when I got back I turned it on again confidently … and the ceiling fell in, water gushed out. I turned it back off again and reached for a plumber. It emerged that a piece of water pipe had a bend in it that hadn’t drained, so it had frozen and burst. The plumber mended the pipe and I turned the water on again; a little water came out of the tap and then stopped; a mystery that was solved when we looked into the well a few hundred yards away that supplied water to three houses, and found it to be dry. Hmm, no water, how to get round that one and why had it happened?
The why was apparently “nae guid sna” over the past two winters; the solution was the purchase of a 500-gallon tank that the water board would fill when necessary, for at the time the cost of connecting to the mains was beyond my means – that came a lot later.
So presently there was water once more, but then the hot water tank started to emit a fine spray, and the plumber had to be reached for again. I got to know the plumber pretty well over the years, and to appreciate him: he fixed things fast, and they stayed fixed.
The kitchen and bathroom had been added on to that basic hut structure by a previous owner, and had a flat roof whose felt covering was beginning to sag and crack in places; for a while, patching worked, but eventually in wet weather the rain would start to drip into the bathroom; roof replacement was going to cost thousands of pounds so I rigged up a gutter below the crack in the bathroom ceiling, at the lower end of which hung a bucket that I could empty into the bath. This was fine for a time, because we don’t usually get a lot of rain, though some visitors found it a bit weird sharing their bath with a gutter and bucket, especially when it rained.
itinerant honeysuckle
But clearly the roof had to be replaced before long, and how was this to be afforded? I got lucky: I was offered a job in the Chemistry department of the university, entering data into their computer – my total ignorance of chemistry didn’t matter, all I had to do was copy things reliably – and before the roof disintegrated I was able to have it replaced, which took a brilliant team just two days, with timber, a big tub of boiling tar, blowtorch, rolls of roofing felt, and a beautiful ladder that I coveted.
Compared to these rather urgent upgrades, the installation of a proper kitchen (B&Q’s second cheapest, excellent, installed by Kay and A) and replacing old cracked draughty windows with double glazing were less pressingly needed but improved the comfort and cooking possibilities enormously.
Meanwhile the garden had needed its bit of attention, for it was almost completely covered to knee height in thistles, dockens, nettles and tall grass; somewhere amongst this were a few apple trees, some gooseberry bushes, a lot of blackcurrants and an amazing number of strawberries hiding among the weeds.
Castle Fraser
A scythe was the obvious starting point, and after many weeks of short bursts of scything the growth was down to a height that a power mower could cope with, though the ground was lumpy and the mower would often grind to a halt in some of the bigger holes.
A cutting from the honeysuckle that we had brought years ago in our yawl across from the Pegal Burn on Hoy to Orphir, and then moved to Stromness, came south with me. I planted it near the front gate where it flourished, seeming not to miss the salt-laden air of its native island.
the Don and Bennachie
Time rolled by, comfort and fruit increased, weeds decreased and occasionally I would remember the need for mountainous wilderness that had pulled me away from island life. But now that I could go there any time I liked without needing to book a ferry, there was no urgency: I could go tomorrow, or next week … but there was just that little bit more to sort out first … and how lovely it was just here …
the Maiden Stone
For instance, there are wee hills (e.g. Bennachie, Cairn William, Correen), from whose summits the big Cairngorms are visible not far away; heaps of castles with quirky ancient lavatorial arrangements, a laird’s lug to let the owner know what the underlings are plotting against him (an early kind of Twitter?), beautiful gardens, interesting sundials and lairds who all seem to be related and over seven feet tall; the river Don flows past nearby, and the Dee is not far away; local stone circles and standing stones, though less majestic than the Orkney examples, are no less interesting; pleasant woodland everywhere, not least on my doorstep; lots of wildlife in garden – toad, deer, fox, owl, woodpecker, lizard, vole, pheasant, squirrel (red), buzzard, various sbb.
Above all, the immediate neighbours, while at a distance where none of us can irritate any of the others by our choice of music, are not merely pleasant and benign people, but helpful to a degree that I will never be able to repay.  
July full moon
And as it has turned out, 25 years have passed, and although I’ve been to Africa and the Algarve, and visited Cee on the west coast and my sister near Oxford, only once have I actually gone back to the old playground, Glencoe, and lived in the tent below the Buachaille, one July with a full moon; but - such was the state of the knees - I couldn’t even reach the lowest rocks, all I could do was look from a distance; the memories crowded in:
hard men on the Rannoch Wall
up there was the Rannoch Wall, once rated “impossible”, now criss-crossed with climbs of all grades of difficulty; there was the line of Curved Ridge, the easy route up and down, where long ago, after sewing up January Jigsaw, we ate our snacks and watched the hard men of the Creag Dhu on the Wall and heard the music of their pitons being hammered into the rock; they were revered in the climbing world: they walked, singing in harmony down climbs that others struggled to get up, and called it “balance walking”; higher up on the summit, at sunset, we had looked eastwards and seen the shadow of the Earth climb up through the distant haze above the Rannoch Moor, and then picked our way down Curved Ridge in the gathering dark; one midsummer night had been filled with the sound of conversation high up on Slime Wall, as a medical student's broken leg was rescued from a place of severely difficult access:
     Broken Leg: "for goodness sake, keep it straight, don't bend it sideways"
     Rescuer: "shut up or we'll break the other one"
just the normal spirit of camaraderie, you understand; away in the other direction was Meall a’ Bhuiridh and the peaks we’d trudged over one evil winter day on the way over to Bridge of Orchy …
visiting the playground
Waves of nostalgia, until dusk brought the dread midge in its millions and the door of the tent had to be closed; present need ousted past reminiscence – all that had been when the limbs functioned, it had been great while it lasted, but that was way back, all those friends (though maybe not the immortals of the Creag Dhu) were long gone. It was time to say goodbye to a long addiction.

Widget, Fidget, Midget aka Mousie
Well, gaps get filled; a new addiction, of a very different kind, leapt in when I went back to Orkney for a short visit and came away with a big cardboard box containing a family of four cats: a completely white mother and her three fortnight-old long-haired dark grey kittens, who moved in and took command and enslaved me. But they – Sooty and the Idgets – need a post to themselves. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

time after time
Goatfell summit: Kay and A
The sun beat down on Goatfell and everything distant was obscured by heat haze; the Rebolg’s tongues hung out thirstily and they eyed the huge granite blocks without enthusiasm: this was no fun, never a woolly thing to chase (a massive relief to the humans).
We had all – Kay, A (her partner), their doberpeople (Rebel and Olga, aka the Rebolg), Cee and Em - met in Arran, joined later by Maude and her Porsche and big tin of biscuits; we were staying in Lochranza; but Arran is small enough to get easily to any bit of it, and this day we had nipped across to Brodick to sew up the highest point, just short of Munro height, but you start from sea level, so it’s far more worthy than the A9 horizontal slagheap Munros.
This is the thing about hills: mere summit height above sea level tells you little of interest; the height from starting point is what matters, and so is angle, type of rock, view, even remoteness. When you open your box of chocolates is your first choice a choc whose summit measures over x mm from base? I think not. If Mr Munro had shredded his list down the toilet, everyone would have had a lot more enjoyment – apart from compulsive list-collectors. Only a personal opinion.
ascent by push chair
Anyway, here we were in Arran, where I’d been several times, first as an infant in the ‘30s, when we crossed to Brodick (in the Waverley paddle steamer, whose career ended in WWII during the Dunkirk episode) and stayed there several years for a month in the summer. Dad, an inveterate hillwalker, pushed me in a wheelchair halfway up Goatfell, while Joan, a couple of years older, walked; perhaps this is why Joan was never a keen hillwalker while I became an addict.
Much later, when we were both at university, Joan and I spent a week there in a hotel, where the food, in those days of rationing, was unbelievable – real eggs, heaps of bacon, actual whipped cream, gosh! (years after, Joan could still remember every meal we had in that hotel). The last day, I felt a need to do Goatfell, and an equal need to be in time for every bit of food; going at top speed all the way to the summit and running all the way back, slithering and sliding on the peat, I reached the lunch table, just in time, covered in perspiration and peat.
Later still, Allen and I took our tents past the notice that told us to BEWARE OF THE BULL, up Glen Rosa and spent a weekend enjoying the decadent new comfort of airbeds, being wary of the unseen bull and sewing up Caliban’s Creep, an amusing wee route on the Rosa Pinnacle of Cir Mhòr.
And now, some 60 years since I’d first been there as an infant, I was back on Goatfell, longing to be an infant in a pushchair again, because the sun was fierce and my companions, Kay, A and the dobers, were all bounding upwards as though gravity had been halved, while advancing years dragged me back like a massive block of concrete. Somewhere down below, at sea level, Cee and Em were touring the shore road on their bikes, good choice in this heat.
granite ridges
Fine as it was to be back among those high granite ridges, the best place during the heat of the day was in the pools and waterfalls of a stream a few miles from Lochranza. In the evenings, towards sunset, it was a pleasant stroll in the cool of the evening up the track to Loch na Davie, or up the hill between Lochranza and Sannox, to watch the sun go down over the Paps of Jura over thirty miles away.

evening stroll
Back down at the cottage, the sunset-induced communal peace was shattered by a scream from Maude, who had opened her tin of biscuits and found it almost empty, raided by the Hunter-Gatherers.  It seems that girls – natural predatory survivors – will scoff any available fodder, while boys wait to be offered. My offspring were all girls, Maude’s all boys, and we fell to discussing this interesting gender difference, though I had a sneaking suspicion that my girls might have learnt to be predators because of their upbringing. (A generation onwards I notice that Kay’s three boys do not raid my chocolate hoard, but who knows whether this is due to their gender or their upbringing?)
distant Jura
No big achievements, but no frights either - apart from the biscuits - just a good holiday before the stressful upheaval that now shimmered in the pipeline – the move from Orkney to Aberdeenshire.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Great Art
south of the Alps
approaching Venice across the lagoon
The call of the cuckoo woke me. It was comfortably warm, though still only March or early April, to the best of my rather fuzzy memory, so where could this be? Sliding back the nearest door of the van I looked out: hmm, a camp site - not the homeland, then. Nearby was my tent. Cuckoo again … gradually the little grey cells got a grip: this was across the lagoon from Venice, in the tent were Cee and her current boyfriend Wimbil (Bill, a denizen of Wimbledon), and home was several days’ driving, around 2,000 miles away.
Cee had happened to be at a loose end, and would quite like to look at places like Venice and Florence, stuffed with Great Art; Wimbil was also interested, and on the way I could maybe have a nostalgic look at an Alp or two. I would sleep in the Mitsubishi van; they would have the tent.
Leaving Orkney in a spring blizzard, the driving needed care until the central belt, where snow gave way to rain, and on we went, hour after hour through the huge boredom of that long, long bit through Englandshire: mile after mile of 70+ mph across an almost completely flat landscape, on and on, till you had the illusion that you were standing still and the other cars were drifting gradually towards you or away from you, and you lost all sense that there was a road surface down underneath, hurtling backwards at a rate that could damage you badly if things went just a tiny bit wrong.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Abingdon, where my sister Joan lived and we could stop for a night or two, my brain cells had nearly ceased to function.
I used to know this bit very well indeed, having lived in Oxford for several years and cycled all around. But now the roads were new bypasses, and I didn’t recognise where exactly we were. Obviously I could ask someone, or find a phone box and ring Joan, but in the brain death of the long drive I couldn’t remember her number, nor her address, nor even her married name. Could this be early-onset dementia? I cruised around until we came upon a recognisable part of the town, upon which everything fell into place and soon we were at Joan’s house. She wondered why I hadn’t rung earlier when we were getting near, but I hardly liked to tell her about the dementia.
Since then I’ve wondered: could one possible cause of dementia be extreme long-term boredom? Ah well, wait and see.
A couple of days in Abingdon, then via the Great Wen of London to pick up Wimbil, thence to Felixstowe and Zeebrugge, and the challenge of driving on the right in a van – on the motorbike it was a doddle, in the car, not too bad, but in the van, visibility from the wrong side was crap.    
Wheeching through the Ardennes, through Luxembourg, a bit of France, across Switzerland (my, how these little European countries flashed past), over the St Bernard Pass, suddenly we were south of the Alps, in sunshine and peach blossom. A nerve-racking hurtle from Milan to Venice, everything going 80+ mph, up tight together; if someone had a puncture a mile away we’d all crunch into mangled tin, aaarrggh.
But at last we could relax, for just across the lagoon lay Venice, the Stromness of the south, pulsing with must-see paintings; and it was quiet, apart from an aircraft lifting off from Marco Polo airport away in the distance, and the cuckoo, bird of midsummer back home.
dilapidated, beautiful
We crossed the lagoon on the hydrofoil and wandered about, soaking up the atmosphere: dilapidated, sinister, beautiful. (Only my personal feeling: others may find it romantic.) And very expensive, for tourism is a large part of what keeps it afloat so a coffee costs the tourist big bucks.
Mere words are inadequate for describing Venice. There’s nowhere like it, and you have to go there before the rising water level drowns its marvels. Apart from the vaporetti, and what the people are wearing, you could be wandering through a Canaletto painting.
I’m not sure how Cee and Wimbil spent the time, whether they got into the Accademia, where you can see European classical art up to the 19th century, if that’s the kind of thing that lights your fire.
art aficionados
Sadly, art is not the thing that hits the spot for me: I can read about it and appreciate it intellectually, and be mildly overwhelmed by the impact of the monstrous real-life size of all those famous paintings that I’ve seen reproductions of in art books; but I don’t feel it the way I see art aficionados feeling it. If the waters rose and drowned all those amazing works of art I would be only mildly regretful: after all, the thousands of reproductions in the art books would not have been drowned, only the size and texture would have been lost.
Whereas if, in some unimaginable way, music were to be lost, then I would feel bereft of much of what makes life worth living. For all it takes is a bar or two of J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti, Chopin, Brahms, Ravel (to name but a few) and the world becomes beautiful, even the world of a hospital ward with macaroni and potato for lunch.
across the river
Florence needed a look, so away south we bowled, through Padua, Ferrara, Bologna, arriving on the outskirts of Florence around commuter time; after a bit of increasingly desperate circling we found a camp site high above the river across from the Duomo. Nearby was the Piazzale Michelangelo, with a copy of the famous David statue, which so gripped Wimbil that he copied the stance thereafter (though remaining fully clad) in any photo that he knew was being taken.
view from window of the Uffizi
Great Art is everywhere in Florence, and no doubt the bairns trundled around finding it, but I limited myself to the Uffizi, where among the famous names I rather like Sandro Botticelli, not for bland, bored madonnas holding grumpy babies, but for portraits of people who look real. I’d seen photographs of two portraits that looked real, Simonetta Vespucci (if that’s who it was) and Flora in the Primavera; both faces wore expressions I recognised from Thick Arithmetic in Stromness Academy, Simonetta having just found out that her boyfriend had been seen in a car in a dark layby with her best friend, and Flora tottering out of the dance hall the worse for home-brew; it mattered little that Simonetta was swathed in jewellery and Flora in little flowers, or that they weren’t wearing distressed jeans and anoraks, or that they’d spent a goodish time with the hairdresser, inside those gorgeous exteriors lived people that I recognised from the classroom.
Simonetta (?)
Would the original paintings give any clue about what Sandro was thinking as he painted them? It was rumoured that he fancied Simonetta (who was married). Her pouting glare looked as though she had maybe been giving Sandro a hard time, Flora as if she’d enjoyed winding him up. There were those who thought these were both the same woman, and that the rather vacant Venus floating ashore on the shell was also Simonetta, which I found incredible – quite different hair colour, quite different expressions, but that was possibly due to the camera, and the actual originals might show more similarity.
The pouting Simonetta wasn’t anywhere in the Uffizi (I should have checked - she’s in New York); flowery Flora was there, in that enormous painting of Spring, but she was surely not the same person as vacant Venus, who was also there. Not that it mattered to a non-aficionado, of course.
What was striking, wandering through the Renaissance, was that all the females were either pregnant or holding a baby on their knees, the baby usually unattractive and grumpy, the mother bored, bewildered or tired, not looking like someone who changed the nappies, wiped up the vomit, bathed the infant – but ladies who were painted would all be rich, and someone else would be doing all that messy stuff, unseen by the painter.
If you could time-travel to live whenever you liked, the Renaissance would be an interesting time for a man, but mostly boring if you were female; the same could be said for classical Greece, and in fact for any era up to the present day, when opportunities for females have expanded hugely during my own lifetime.
San Gimignano
We cruised about Tuscany a bit, visiting Siena (amusing striped cathedral, like a gigantic liquorice allsort) and San Gimignano, famed for its towers: in olden days you demonstrated your wealth and power by building a tower taller than any of your rivals’ efforts - your tower was a kind of gold-plated stretch limo. The bairns were a tad hungover and disinclined for effort, but I went up the tallest tower to admire the view: nearby the architecture and roof tiles surpassed anything to be seen at home; the middle distance was pleasant, without anything eye-catching; but away in the distance was a snow-covered range of mountains, part of the Apennines, the spine of Italy, recalling the sight of the distant Cairngorms from above the Devil’s Elbow.
big tower, distant Apennines
Some day, I thought, I would come back and investigate the Apennines – there were a lot of them and they reached twice the height of a Cairngorm. It would still be on my to-do list if I were able for it.
The problem with Tuscany is that you need a lifetime to explore it, and we couldn’t spend the rest of our lives here, so we turned north and visited friends in Rivara, near Turin, where the bairns played football in the huge garden and then caught a train in Turin to go home.
I stayed on in Rivara a few days, in the course of which Sandro and his friend who was a park ranger took me for a day in the Gran Paradiso National Park, which I’d last seen in the distance some thirty years before, from the French/Italian border above Courmayeur.
The ranger took us deep into the park to see an abandoned village with houses through whose cellars flowed the stream in which they kept their cheeses fresh; the school still had its little desks and the last lesson chalked on the blackboard. I’m not sure if I understood all the information, though the ranger spoke slowly and clearly for the foreigner, but I understood him to say that the people had used the chestnut tree for all of their fuel and much of their food, the meat coming from chamois and ibex. This early in the year these animals were down here in the valley and the noise of ibex horns clashing was all around. A memorable day, but no photos, because the whole film that I used that day turned out to be far too dark.
near Rivara
Next day I was taken a tour of the village: the cemetery – mostly niches in a wall with photos of the departed, but one big tomb with railings around it contained the Contessa, whom we had met in her castle ten years back on a previous visit; we had sat at the enormous table, highly polished and riddled with fat woodworm (unless they were bullet holes) and admired her accentless colloquial English, for she had been brought up by an Edinburgh nanny; over the great creaking door was engraved the family motto:
Now she was in this tomb, so she had died sometime in the last decade, but, sadly, had failed to conquer, on account of having married, late in life and wearing a black velvet wedding dress, an unreliable chap wearing co-respondent shoes and a panama hat, who used up her money and quickly abandoned her, and had now sold the castle. (If I understood everything I was being told, of course.)
In the evening my friends took me out, together with the whole extended family, to eat at a restaurant, where my hosts ordered the main dish, telling me that since I lived on an island I obviously liked frutti di mare; in the seconds that it took me to (a) realise this was seafood, a thing I detest beyond all other types of nosh, and (b) arrive at a polite way to express this in Italian, it was too late, and the octopus tentacles were on their way. Though managing to stuff these shiny worms with their predatory suckers into my mouth, I could not swallow them, and sat with bulging cheeks, speaking through lips tightly pursed to block the escape of the imprisoned frutti; fortunately they were talking so animatedly among themselves that speech was not called for, and presently I managed a visit to the loo where I unloaded the burden.
On the road again I made a leisurely way up the Val d’Aosta, heading for Courmayeur and Entrèves where there was now a tunnel under Mont Blanc to Chamonix. Leisurely, because there were many alluring side-valleys worth exploring. But I soon realised it was too early in the year, the snow too deep, the little roads impassable, so, pressing on to Entrèves, I entered the tunnel.
The last time I’d been hereabouts was thirty years before, at a time when there was no tunnel, and I’d been walking on the glaciers and rocks above where the tunnel now existed. They’d drilled simultaneously from the French and Italian sides, and when they met, somewhere in the middle, the error was less than 13 cm, an impressive feat.
Mont Blanc from tunnel entrance
In the tunnel I was very aware of the huge mass of Mont Blanc sitting up above, and the tunnel was very long (over 7 miles) … and very empty … no other traffic … nothing at all … and now it was going down, and you couldn’t see where it ended … still no other traffic, on this, the major road link between Italy and France, why? there had been a lot of notices about speed and not overtaking or turning around, was there something I’d missed, had Mont Blanc come crashing through the roof? … still no other traffic … why?
I found I was sweating. It was taking too long. It couldn’t take this long, could it? The ancient lizard-brain had gone into red-alert mode and was mucking about with time, slowing it down, like when you have an accident. Had it seen something that I hadn’t? Where were the other cars? Still going downhill, still no visible exit.
It couldn’t have taken that long, 7 miles at between 30 and 45 mph (the minimum and maximum speeds permitted), say ten minutes, possibly the longest ten minutes I’ve ever lived through. A speck of daylight appeared, grew larger, the exit, Chamonix, phew.

I was puzzled at the level of unease I'd been feeling, though if things go wrong a tunnel is obviously a bad place to be. But quite how bad became clear only many years later, in 1999, when a lorry carrying margarine and flour went on fire half-way through the tunnel, and the fire services were beaten back by black toxic smoke and heat; it took over two days to put the fire out, the temperature rose to 1000oC and 39 people died.

North of the Alps now, I’d escaped from all that wall-to-wall sunshine and peach-blossom; in fact it was dreich, and the farther north the dreicher it got; one camp site was deep in snow. I suppose I must have got the ferry back from Zeebrugge to Felixstowe but it’s a complete blank in my memory, and so is the rest of the way home …

Unless that was the time I went to visit an aged (90+) aunt in Devon and got mauled by her Alsatian, after which a gliding course at Husbands Bosworth, near Leicester: a gripping experience sailing noiselessly over Bosworth Field (Richard III vs Henry VII, 1485), looking for the little cumulus clouds that meant lift; my instructor, Reg, who had flown Spitfires, could find lift where none should be – it was rumoured that he switched on an electric fire in his hearth to generate a secret column of rising hot air that only he could find; there were tales of reaching Didcot power station which would lift you to a height where you could ride the wave generated by the mountains of Wales far away to the west: a whole fascinating new dimension, from whose allure, after a week, I tore free and drove north overnight, stopped at dawn for breakfast on the A68 at the top of the Soutra, there was Edinburgh, where I’d been to University, where the early years of marriage had flitted past, on north through Perth, where I’d been to school, up the A9 past those horizontal slagheap Munros that I never sewed up, past the snow-covered Cairngorms, which the sight of the Apennines had brought to mind ...
big hair, distant Cairngorms
... through Inverness, past the layby where I’d been diverted by the sight of the mountains of the west and failed to go the rest of the way to Ulan Bator, on and on, whole pieces of my life rolling by, till the trees gave way to bleak moorland and loch, and Scrabster, to wait for a space on the Ola for the Pentland Firth and Stromness. Was all that on the same journey that I’d started in the March blizzard? The memory is none too reliable, but it’s sure that the last bit was in a blizzard. In May.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

to and fro
the yo-yo years
on the Big Moss
Over 3,000 feet up, on the Moine Mhor (Big Moss), the immense plateau above Glenfeshie, studded with lochans and wee streams, surrounded by Cairn Toul, Braeriach and, far below, Loch Einich, as Kay and I put up the tent, I was impressed to find that she had carried a bottle of pinot grigio all that way, so that we could enjoy gourmet living. From quite an early age, she had been interested in cooking, probably because my skills were so limited, and it was great to be sharing the tent with someone who could do better than kippers and marmalade for breakfast.
wee lochan
In May, late winter, the snow was old and patchy, the day windless, the sun bright, and we spent the rest of the day plootering about the wee lochans, still part frozen, and coasting along the tops to the west of Loch Einich. Back in the tent, the gourmet nosh and nicely chilled bottle gave rise to a level of contentment with life that dived sharply in the wee small hours when I woke hearing the well-remembered whisper on the roof of the tent and looked out to see that there were already several inches of snow, and that the stuff was coming down very thickly indeed.
above Loch Einich
We packed up as fast as we could and headed for the valley, but it was uphill to start with, and in the snow and semi-dark impossible to see more than a few feet; without the compass, we would soon have been wandered; as it was, we were well off the track and battling through an ever-increasing depth of snow that masked boulders, heather and holes, until we were nearly down into the glen.
Had we been in too much of a hurry to pull out, wasting all that effort to take the tent up onto the plateau? no, the snow continued for the next fortnight.
Midsummer, and Ishbel, her sister Sheena and I had a gorgeous day up on the Big Moss, over to Braeriach, a little way from whose summit we found the Wells of Dee, where the infant River Dee first emerges from the stony hillside: a sharp metallic taste, but a few feet lower, trickling through bright green moss, the water became sweet.
cascading stream
This time we were camped down in the glen, by a cascading stream among the trees, dry level ground, rich in ants. That evening Ishbel insisted that we all do a quiz designed to assess our potential for survival. Sheena and I were not at all keen to find out our prospects, but Ishbel insisted, so we did the quiz. It turned out that Sheena and I would survive fine, because in the last resort we would eat Ishbel, but she, a much less brutal person, reluctant to eat us, would not. She was astounded and seriously dischuffed, a pity, up till then it had been a perfect day, and after all it was only a quiz.
Glenfeshie, much less spectacular than Loch Morlich or the Lairig Ghru, and with no chair lift to bypass the slog up to the plateau, was free from the tourist hordes, its river was good for swimming, and there was even a gliding club nearby. I found I was going back there a lot; for after coming home from the abortive Ulan Bator expedition, it had soon become clear that an early-retired body was still needing to travel, but not at all clear where to.
below Liathach
When Cee came with me to Torridon in the Mitsubishi van, there was cloud down over all the summits, so we followed a slightly furtive Japanese angler (who claimed to be heading for a loch with an exotic fish - but we may have misunderstood) up the track that goes round the north of Liathach to look at the wee loch, but without sunshine it was a dreich, dismal place, and the angler had disappeared. Fortunately Cee was happy for hours sitting in the van drawing cartoons or reading.
in the van
At the river, as I bent to fill the water container, the bank gave way and I fell in, landing on a finger which came out of the water at an unusual angle. Quicker than thought the other hand  pulled it straight; it swelled up and turned an interesting dark colour, and was so painful that I couldn’t easily change gear, so for the next few days Cee worked the gear lever while I de-clutched. (In retrospect, should the van technically have had an L-plate?) Later, back home, an x-ray showed a fracture, but it was already healing fine and nothing more needed to be done.
on Stac Polly
Kay mostly had good weather, and she cruised up Beinn Eighe, Ben Mor Coigach and Stac Polly with what looked like enjoyment, and at a rate of knots that made me realise that now she was, though still inexperienced, definitely the strong element in the duo, while I was the fading laggard.
Maude and I went to Torridon in October, in her huge car, which stuck in the mud, so we spent a day building a road out of whatever flat stones we could find nearby. After many hours we thought the road was firm enough and long enough to drive out of the mud; cautiously Maude tried, and the great beast rode out onto the tarmac, no problem.
Too late for a hill, so we went along to the pub, where the locals looked us over and wondered where we were staying. In our tent, we said. Local eyes glittered with appreciation: “Och, you will be as hard as the deer.” Well, we hoped it was appreciation rather than irony, and ever since have raised our spirits from any low ebb by saying to each other “but och, we are as hard as the deer …”
And in the following days our hard hooves sewed up Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe.
It was becoming obvious that each of these quick visits to the high places was costing a return ferry fare and a previous booking, which made it impossible to simply go when there was a spell of fine weather and come back when it turned bad. Perhaps it was time for a change, a longer journey, to … where?
A plan started to form: away south to the sun, maybe France and/or Italy? Fresh-baked rolls, local cheeses and wines? Tiny hill-towns pulsing with history? Major centres of renaissance art, enormous paintings by famous names? Very different from the wilderness of the homeland, but very appealing.
Was anyone interested in coming along? Yes, Cee and her current boyfriend, both art aficionados, would like to go to Venice and Florence.
(To be continued)
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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

finding the way
comfort-free zone
Inside the bothy it was fairly free from comfort: a concrete floor to sleep on, a pail to collect the formidable quantity of snow you need in order to produce enough water for a breakfast coffee – and what had been previously in that pail might have been sheep-dip, to judge by the taste. It was a relief to emerge in the morning and find the day sunny, except that the tops we were to sew up that day, Carn Mairg and Schiehallion, were lost in cloud.
Carn Mairg and Schiehallion
But we had all the navigation gear you could hope for in that era – compass, O.S. 1” maps, torch (in case of benightment) and whistle to blow for help (eh? who would hear us?) So off we trudged through the snow, onwards and upwards until we were in the cloud, and eventually we reached what we thought was probably the top of Carn Mairg.
Only probably, because we could see nothing, and this was not a sharp peak, just one of several rounded summits; but since the ground fell away downwards on all sides and we had gone what seemed to be the right distance and travelled uphill what felt like the right amount, and because we wanted to get on and sew up Schiehallion, a much more satisfying peak, from which you could see right across the Rannoch Moor to our playground in Glencoe, we decided that this could be deemed to be Carn Mairg.
So we looked at the map and got a compass bearing and our leader pointed into the whiteness and set off at a rate of knots.
Our leader, Dave, a human dynamo of close-packed energy, was of posh origin and fell naturally at all times into the role of leader; we proles fell naturally into the role of follower, and accordingly we followed Dave into the whiteness.
Time passed. The mind goes hazy in the white-out; you can actually fall asleep while still trudging steadily onwards; you lose track of reality. But shouldn’t we be starting to go downhill? For we needed to lose over 1,000 feet of height in order to cross the valley and start the ascent of Schiehallion. Instead of which we seemed to be traversing a large expanse of plateau.
But presently we were cheered by coming upon recent prints of boots that had gone in the same direction as ourselves. Hurrah, we must be on course, all we had to do was carry on and follow these other people. Must be others from our climbing bus that were doing the same as we were … who could it be? Well, whoever it was, it was fine to know there was someone to hear the whistle if we needed help, chortle, chortle. And on we went, following the lovely clear bootprints. More hazy time passed, more plateau, more whiteness.
Just as I was belatedly noticing that one of these bootprints showed a defect identical to the bit in my left boot which had recently lost a nail, we suddenly joined another set of bootprints, and the realisation burst upon all of us simultaneously that we had gone round in a gigantic circle and were following our own footprints, round and round.
Awed at having fallen into this classic trap, we now kept checking the compass, descended into the valley, climbed Schiehallion, upon whose rocky summit, above the cloud, we sat and ate Penguins and drank in the spectacular view.
Schiehallion summit
We dissected and shared an orange, while dissecting our gigantic circular trudge and sharing our amazement that this could really have happened: for we had all been sure that we were heading in a straight line; tales of lost walkers circling ceaselessly until the hypothermia picked them off we had long ago put into the Dustbin of Rural Myth. But now the tales had leapt out of the dustbin and gibbered at us. We agreed that, in the bus on the way home, no word of this episode would escape any of our lips during the usual chat about who had done what and how and why.
But later, because white-out is not uncommon, I thought it might be an idea to practise walking blindfold and see if there was a way to keep straight instead of circling. The pace with the right foot was a tiny bit longer than the pace with the left foot, so I tried to lengthen the left pace a little bit to compensate, and of course I over-compensated and circled the opposite way … friends helping with this experiment seemed to find it hilarious, as I zigged and zagged, trying to find the magic even pace.
It took time and merriment, but at last I became able to keep a straight line for several hundred yards, and felt that in a white-out on, say, the Cairngorms plateau, I’d now be better able to avoid the dread Circle of Death.
Loch Avon, Shelter Stone, Loch Etchachan
Came a day when I went up Deeside, bound for Ben Macdui, but the cloud was well down over all the tops, so I went up Glen Derry to take a look at Loch Avon. By Loch Etchachan (frozen nine months of the year) it was snowing hard and drifting in the strong wind, but once down by Loch Avon, in the shelter of the surrounding crags, it felt nearly warm, and the temptation was to linger and read the Visitors’ Book in the famous Shelter Stone where up to six people can spend the night in minimum comfort.
However it was not a day to lie about enjoying a good read, for the snow was coming down heavily, the cloud was creeping lower, and it was ten miles or so back to the Deeside road. So I had a good look at the map, zipped up tight and started off.
The steep climb from Loch Avon took me into blizzard; the track was covered, the snow was getting deeper and drifting, and the wind’s ferocity was increasing. But it would be only about half a mile before I’d be gently descending from around the 3,000-foot level down to Loch Etchachan, so this was the time to use my honed skill at walking in a straight line; for if you constantly look at the map in the blizzard you risk losing gloves, the wind can tear the map or blow it away, you get too cold, you start making mistakes.
And so I ploughed on through the drifts, taking care to keep in a straight line, and after a bit the cloud got a bit less dense and I caught a glimmer of water below me. Yes! That would be Loch Etchachan, soon I’d be out of the cloud, it would be gentle downhill all the way … but surely this bit shouldn’t be so steep? … more water came into view, a long narrow bit of water, much too far below. I had gone round in a big circle and was dropping back down to Loch Avon … ah me, the Circle of Death, the hypothermia, aarrgh!
So out with the map and compass, never mind the cold hands and the wind tearing at the map, only half a mile or so back up and over, and eventually the real Loch Etchachan came into view, and soon I was down out of the cloud and could see where I was going, whew.
It was a salutary reminder that the wilderness is neutral, it neither loves nor hates you, it doesn’t care; it can carelessly finish you off with a piece of weather or loose rock; you’re the one that cares whether you survive or not, so you have to use all your skill and clever toys when conditions are bad.
plootering about on Bidean nam Bian
There are some who have a gift for knowing the way. Four of us had been plootering about on the various tops south of the Glencoe road; the cloud settled over us, and typically, being a group, we hadn’t been paying much attention to where exactly we were; and we wanted to be sure of coming down northwards, so as to get to the road, rather than southwards where there would be a long walk back. Once below the cloud we’d be fine because we’d recognise which corrie we were in. So it was time to look at the compass.
Bidean nam Bean
But wait! George claimed always to be sure where north was, so here was a chance to see if the claim was true. OK, we said, show us north. George’s eyes grew vague and unseeing as he accessed his inner powers; then his arm shot out and pointed unwaveringly in the direction of … we looked at the compass … due south. Ah. We repeated the test from time to time, and every time without fail he would point south, certain that it was north. A powerful gift. So long as you remembered to add 180o. George had grown up in South Africa; could that have keyed him into the South Pole instead of the North? No way of knowing, since no-one knew how the gift worked.
As we stood there wondering where exactly we were on the ridge, before we started the descent, Henry, a techno-chap whose dearest wish was for the return of the Stanley Steamer (a car powered by steam, you can get a 1910 model now for around £15,000), pulled from his anorak an altimeter; “If we know our height” said Henry, “we’ll know which top this is”. Good thinking.
Henry consulted his technotoy, and looked puzzled. “We seem to be at 4,322 feet, but …“ A pause, while the implications sank in.
“So we’re somewhere near the top of Nevis? When did you calibrate it?” asked Johnny, who had flown gliders.
“Um, yesterday, in Edinburgh” admitted Henry, looking abashed.
The silence that followed was pregnant with unspoken comment, and the altimeter never appeared again.
We were never lost. Being lost depends on how precisely you want to know where you are; you always know roughly where you are: Glencoe / Scotland / Europe / Planet Earth. We were never lost, for we knew we were (e.g.) near Carn Mairg, or between Loch Avon and Loch Etchachan, or in the Bidean nam Bian group, which was precise enough most of the time.
What we needed was to know what direction would take us, over terrain that we could cope with, to where we wanted to go, fast enough to escape hypothermia, starvation or dehydration.
What we needed was simply to find the way.
If I were a minister doing my sermon, I would say “I sometimes think Life is a little like that.” Eech.
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